Mutiny aboard Ark Restaurants! Employees sue

Restaurant Union Deluges Ark

Michael Weinstein, the man at the helm of Ark Restaurants Corporation, a large, publicly traded company, has repeatedly been noted in the restaurant trade as a guy who is good to the people who work for him. Mr. Weinstein is reputed to remember his employees’ names ( Restaurant Business ). He is said to display “a kind of caring that is uncommon” for someone in his position, even selling three of his restaurants at a loss to ensure that his workers kept their jobs ( Nation’s Restaurant News ). He offers medical benefits to anyone who works three shifts a week and reserves jobs for actors who take time off for a gig ( The Wall Street Journal ).

So it was surprising that on Oct. 21, some of his workers filed suit against Ark in United States District Court in Manhattan. Among their claims: that Ark has failed to pay minimum wage and overtime pay, has improperly taken “tip credits” out of workers’ wages, and has forced them to buy and launder their own uniforms. The allegations were brought by more than 30 former and current Ark workers at 13 of the corporation’s New York restaurants. While Lutèce, the company gem, wasn’t among them, An American Place (“a favorite for lunch or a pre-Madison Square Garden dinner,” according to Zagat’s restaurant survey); America, the college-student watering hole in the Flatiron district; the West Side’s Columbus Bakery; and Bryant Park Cafe all were.

Paying for the workers’ trip to court is the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, which became increasingly interested in Ark as it became increasingly powerful in the restaurant business, said John Stamm, a researcher at the union’s Manhattan local who worked on the suit. Mr. Stamm said the lawsuit came about after union workers leafleted outside some of Ark’s 30-odd restaurants, informing porters, “salad men” and dishwashers of their rights. (Like most restaurants in Manhattan, Ark’s are not unionized, save for Lutèce.) “In reaching out to Ark workers, we’ve heard many stories that are not consistent with [the company’s] self-proclaimed liberal treatment of them,” Mr. Stamm said. He insisted that the lawsuit was not part of a drive to unionize. “It’s always an open possibility,” he noted, “but I can definitely tell you we haven’t targeted Ark for that at all.”

Mr. Weinstein, however, seemed suspicious of dark motives when reached by phone in Las Vegas, where Ark runs the food court at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino. Mr. Weinstein demanded to know how The Observer heard about the lawsuit against Ark and grew angry when the information was not forthcoming. “Then I have no comment,” he said. “I think it was planted with you.”

Indeed, this is not Mr. Weinstein’s first encounter with the restaurant employees union. In July, 9,500 union members and supporters gathered outside the New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. The union boosters have been waging a battle with Mr. Weinstein, claiming that his Las Vegas workers want to organize. Ark’s response has been that employees should take a vote on the matter. In Las Vegas, the Culinary Workers Union, Local 226, has also backed employee complaints against Ark with the Labor Relations Board and asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate Ark over disclosures concerning some of its Nevada business. The suit against Ark here in New York is backed by the same union’s parent organization and could put even more pressure on Mr. Weinstein’s company.

“Ark represents a real threat to the standard of living of workers in Las Vegas,” said Glen Arnodo, a culinary union spokesman. “Ark is our primary focus. The workers want a union. We’re going to stick with it until we have one.”

-Susan Orenstein

The Senator And the Showman

In a state known for such headline-generating politicians as former Senator Bill Bradley and Senator Robert Torricelli, Frank Lautenberg is an anomaly. Mr. Lautenberg is the kind of low-profile senator whom national reporters rarely go to for a quote. Heat-seeking sound bites are not his forte. One might say he’s boring.

For the last 10 months, Mr. Lautenberg’s press secretary, Steven Goldstein, has been waging a media campaign to dispel that notion. Mr. Goldstein has been faxing out a stream of Congressional press releases in Mr. Lautenberg’s name that bear screaming tabloid headlines. “The Ayatollah Is Rolling Over in His Grave,” read a Sept. 17 release touting Mr. Lautenberg’s successful support for a ban on importing military weapons from Iran. “You Can Slice It! Dice It! Stick It in Your Edsel Ashtray!” blared an Oct. 23 advisory that noted Mr. Lautenberg was inducting into his “Ridiculous Invention Hall of Fame”-a kind of a hyperliteral take on the Golden Fleece Awards, perhaps-that wraparound Philip Morris invention designed to reduce secondhand smoke. The bottom of the release even contained a quote, studded with pop-cultural references, from the Senator: “I fully expect Philip Morris’ cigarette contraption to take off-as fast as Ishtar , the Yugo and Pat Boone’s heavy-metal career.”

Not surprisingly, Mr. Goldstein came to be the sober-minded Mr. Lautenberg’s press secretary last January after a stint as a producer for Oprah Winfrey’s talk show. He insisted that the Senator is “the warmest and funniest person I’ve ever worked for,” adding, “I don’t see why his staff shouldn’t be the same.”

To those who think the releases aren’t highbrow enough, Mr. Goldstein groused, “Can they please get their sticks out of their tushies?”

To most observers, Mr. Lautenberg’s hiring of a former Oprah producer as his press secretary is a clear attempt to juice up his image. The Senator is known to have chafed at the press attention showered on his better-known New Jersey counterparts, such as former Senator Bradley and Senator Torricelli, a flamboyant self-promoter. But Mr. Goldstein insisted, “The Senator’s enhanced image comes from his enhanced legislative status in Washington,” a reference to Mr. Lautenberg’s anti-tobacco stance and top-ranked Democratic status on the Senate Budget Committee.

Mr. Goldstein’s press releases have not gone unnoticed in journalistic circles. Bob Schieffer, CBS’s chief Washington correspondent and host of the Sunday morning public-affairs show Face the Nation , keeps a file of them in his cubicle at the Capitol. “They’re just so bizarre,” he told The Transom, adding that he’s become strangely addicted to the missives, which come spitting out of his fax machine once a day or so. “It has kind of been like collecting baseball cards,” said the CBS newsman.

-Mary Jacoby

Designated Baldwin

“Giuliani’s pretty much a lock next week because, you know, the economy’s doing well,” said actor William Baldwin as he surveyed the crowd at the René Lezard boutique in SoHo on Oct. 29. This being an event “in support of individualism,” sponsored by the Creative Coalition, that entertainment advocacy group populated by the likes of actors Ron Silver and Stockard Channing, an appearance by one of the acting Baldwins was a foregone conclusion. Alec Baldwin, who is the coalition’s president as well as an active, outspoken Democrat, was not present, so the young William, also a coalition member, seemed to be the designated Baldwin this evening. Outfitted in black, he toured the boutique with the coalition’s chairman of the board, Michael Bennahum and, at The Transom’s request, gave his appraisal of the metro-area political landscape six days away from Election Day.

“Look what’s going on in Jersey right now. The only reason Christine Todd Whitman is not experiencing the same advantage as Giuliani is because James McGreevey has gone after this pocketbook issue of car insurance,” said Mr. Baldwin, sounding a bit like Alec. “Democrats [in New York City] haven’t been able to pin anything like this on Giuliani.” As for Ms. Whitman, Mr. Baldwin said, “I don’t call her a moderate, I call her a frickin’ realist. How could you be a woman in 1997 and be pro-life? She’s gotta be pro-choice for her political survival, aside from the fact that it’s the right side of the issue.”

Mr. Bennahum interrupted the actor. “Billy, I want you to meet Miles of Women’s Wear Daily. ” This was a designer boutique after all, and Mr. Baldwin quickly shifted into fashion-week mode (“I might go to the women’s shows. I love Calvin. He’s a great guy …”). The Transom waited until he was finished. What about that campaign finance mess down in Washington, D.C., we asked. “Between the Lincoln Bedrooms and the coffees and Al Gore and the temple [referring to the Vice President’s Buddhist nun campaign finance scandal], it’s bad,” said Mr. Baldwin. The reality is money is where it’s at when it comes to elections.… And all of these guys, Democrats and Republicans, are hypocrites.”

A flack arrived to whisk Mr. Baldwin away for a photo op with Fabrice Morvan, formerly one-half of the lip-synching group Milli Vanilli. Somehow, he had been invited to the event. “I operate as Fabrice now,” said Mr. Morvan. “That’s who I am and that’s who I always was.” He said this without a trace of irony.

When Mr. Baldwin left for his close-up, Mr. Bennahum pondered the meaning of celebrity. “It’s so weird,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of celebrities that are not nice.” He remembered being 13 years old and watching a young girl ask Tallulah Bankhead for her autograph. Mr. Bennahum recounted Bankhead’s reply, spoken like a true individualist: “Go fuck yourself, little girl, I have no time for you.”

-Carrie Cunningham

Mutiny aboard Ark Restaurants! Employees sue